The 3rd Quarter Standing Ovations of The Oracle

My friend David is a Warriors aficionado. He has been a devotee of the Golden State Warriors since 1975, when he watched a team with no superstars who epitomized everything that was right about sports. He loved Al “The Destroyer” Attles, the only coach in the NBA who was both strong and patient enough to deal with Rick Barry (he of the bottomless pit of ego).

The Warriors are nearing the half-way point of the 2014-15 season, having just won their 34th game out of 40. 34-6. To give some context, the Warriors won fewer than 40 games in 16 of the 18 seasons between 1994-95 and 2012-13. Last year’s 51-win team was only the 5th Warriors squad to achieve the 50-win mark in franchise history, which dates back to the 72-game schedule seasons of the early 1950s. One more win and they’d be on pace to win 70 games. The Warriors are a perfect 13-0 against the East, and 19-1 at the Oracle.

After busting out in November and December, winning 23 of their first 26 games, they dropped two in a row (an inexplicable second-game-of-a-back-to-back no-show loss to the Lakers after a Christmas Day loss to the Clippers in LA). Since that holiday loss, they’ve been on an absolute rampage, winning 11 of 12. During this stretch of dominance, Golden State has simply torched the competition.

Margins of victory: 13, 40, 21 (the Toronto game on January 2nd), 26, 15, 18, 11, 15, 25, 43. The only loss came at Oklahoma City, where Steve Kerr rested Bogut and Iguodala. These insanely lopsided wins have come since David Lee returned to action, averaging 10 ppg in 19 min. But it’s the absence of Lee in the starting five that has the Warriors playing arguably the best defense in the NBA. Draymond Green’s sensational versatility and instincts. Shaun Livingston’s length. Bogut and Iguodala with their uncanny ability for throwing opponents out of whack. Opponents are shooting a league-low 42.1% from the floor. The Warriors are holding teams to the 3rd-lowest 3-PT % against (31.7%).

For the analytically-inclined, their effective field goal percentage is a whopping .546. Only the LeBron-led Heat of the previous two seasons have had higher team eFG% in the last (I stopped checking after five years, as the league-wide FG% has risen over the past two decades. This year’s Warriors are averaging a ridiculous 27 assists per game.

The Draymond Green explosion has been in full effect for a while now. As Jonathan Tjarks notes, the Four-Out Revolution has, indeed, been televised. The modern NBA is a place where stretch power forwards abound, and point guards glide into the paint with ease, making split-second decisions to whip the ball over-their-shoulders, or high off the glass over outstretched arms. Steph Curry and Kyle Lowry are two of those roundball maestros.

My friend David and I went to see the Warriors and Raptors a couple of weeks ago. Since I moved to the East Bay this summer, where these Warriors reside, I haven’t had the lovely impromptu conversations with my Warriors-obsessed friend that I’d gotten used to. I hadn’t been to a game here this year either. As you might imagine, getting tickets ain’t easy right now.

This Year’s Warriors and the 2007-08 Celtics

This season is reminiscent of the 2007-08 Celtics season. The arrival of KG and Ray leading to 66 wins and a championship banner that the new generation of Celtics fans so desperately craved, thriving off of a defense that crushed the wills of opposing scorers. Bogut’s interior physicality might be likened to a healthy and then-physically dominant Kendrick Perkins. Draymond Green and Kevin Garnett have a similar internal fire that triggers the best in their teammates. Klay Thompson blankets scorers the way that Pierce does. The five teammates rotate as if on a string, communicating at all times.

This year has a similarly magical quality to it for these Warriors. After 36 games, the Warriors had a +400 point differential. Of the 14 teams to start the season that spectacularly, 10 of them have gone on to win the title (thanks, Curtis Harris). One of those teams is the 2007-08 Celtics. Unlike those Celtics, these Warriors will have to contend with three rounds of insanely high-quality competition just to make the NBA Finals. But before we fast-forward to mid-April and the highly anticipated Western Conference First Round Collisions, let’s appreciate what it’s like to be in Oracle Arena these days.

Toronto came into the game leading the Eastern Conference with a 24-8 record, but starting to feel the impact of the west coast road trip they were in the middle of.

First quarter

40 Golden State points. A barrage of threes. Non-stop ball movement. 7 Seconds Or Less. (How have I still not read that book? Sorry, Jack McCallum)

Halftime

Warriors 66, Raptors 61.

Curry 14 points, 8 assists (accounting for 33 of his team’s points)

Lowry 17 points, 6 assists (accounting for 32 of his team’s points)

The two all-world point guards were ferocious from the opening tip. One-upping each other throughout the half. Lowry is forced to bear too much of the burden with wing DeMar DeRozan on the sidelines. Lowry appears to be on a mission to prove the All-Star voters from last year wrong. What a penetrating force he is. Steph simply continues to take whatever the defense gives him and use his insane range and hair-trigger release to his great advantage, finding creases in the defense off the dribble.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8JSTCvW8YA

Third Quarter Insanity

The Raptors defense has been leaky at times this year, which was masked by the weaker competition they faced early in the season. Golden State snuffed out any Raptors hopes during the first six minutes after halftime. The Warriors poured in 21 points in the first 5:47 of the period.

A five-point lead (66-61) ballooned to 21 (87-66) in what felt like a few minutes. Klay Thompson triples bookended the run. In between, the Raptors were blocked (three times), stolen (twice), threw the ball away, and committed several offensive fouls, as well as receiving a shot-clock violation. It was like a wrecking ball descended on Toronto’s offense. Nothing worked and the game fell apart at the seams.

Suffocating Warrior defense + transition offense = standing fucking ovations.

Third quarter standing ovations.

Game #32! of an 82-game regular season standing ovations.

Oh and Draymond? Messed around and got a triple-double. 16 points, 13 assists!, 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks. Ethan Sherwood Strauss recently wrote about the prospect of Draymond getting a max-contract offer. Strauss was following up on former coach and current ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy’s comments about the possibility of Green getting the maximum green.

It’s incredible what happens when all the pieces fit. When defensive genius is given its proper respect. Too often, where a player is drafted defines his NBA career. Sometimes, though, it provides extra motivation (stories of certain players memorizing each player drafted ahead of them, in order to prove something each night they face one of those one-time more desirable players.)

Draymond wasn’t supposed to be a starter, much less a potential franchise building-block. He was drafted after 34 other players were selected in the 2012 draft. His offensive numbers are less than remarkable. But the value he brings shows up in advanced stats like Real Plus-Minus. His defensive value shows up in blocks and steals, but the value of his ability to guard anyone and everyone on the floor (okay, 80% of NBA starters) is still impossible to quantify.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-08-at-1.29.26-PM

Forget the debate for now. Forget 70 wins. Just enjoy the pure ecstasy in Oakland. The Oracle earning its “Roar-acle” moniker. Energy is a funny thing. Once it starts flowing, it doesn’t want to stop. David brings positivity wherever he goes. It’s a contagious feeling, that kind of communal lift. The fans in Boston know what that can be like, when pandemonium becomes the only appropriate word. They know it in Oakland. April can’t get here fast enough. Or can it? Warriors fans have another 40 games to savor this remarkable season.

The breakdown:

12:00.0 Start of 3rd quarter
11:40.0 K. Lowry misses 2-pt shot from 11 ft 61-66
11:39.0 Offensive rebound by A. Johnson 61-66
11:25.0 A. Johnson misses 2-pt shot from 18 ft 61-66
11:24.0 61-66 Defensive rebound by D. Green
11:19.0 61-69 +3 K. Thompson makes 3-pt shot from 27 ft (assist by S. Curry)
11:02.0 T. Ross makes 2-pt shot from 1 ft (assist by K. Lowry) +2 63-69
10:40.0 63-71 +2 D. Green makes 2-pt shot from 18 ft
10:18.0 T. Ross misses 3-pt shot from 25 ft 63-71
10:17.0 63-71 Defensive rebound by M. Speights
10:13.0 63-73 +2 K. Thompson makes 2-pt shot from 15 ft (assist by D. Green)
9:50.0 J. Valanciunas misses 2-pt shot from 6 ft (block by D. Green) 63-73
9:49.0 63-73 Defensive rebound by H. Barnes
9:45.0 63-73 H. Barnes misses 2-pt shot from 17 ft
9:44.0 63-73 Offensive rebound by M. Speights
9:44.0 63-73 M. Speights misses 2-pt shot from 1 ft
9:40.0 63-73 Offensive rebound by S. Curry
9:36.0 63-75 +2 M. Speights makes 2-pt shot from 2 ft (assist by H. Barnes)
9:35.0 Toronto full timeout 63-75
9:35.0 P. Patterson enters the game for J. Valanciunas 63-75
9:25.0 63-75 Personal foul by H. Barnes (drawn by L. Fields)
9:12.0 T. Ross misses 2-pt shot from 22 ft (block by K. Thompson) 63-75
9:11.0 Offensive rebound by Team 63-75
9:11.0 Turnover by Team (shot clock) 63-75
9:02.0 63-75 Offensive foul by D. Green (drawn by L. Fields)
9:02.0 63-75 Turnover by D. Green (offensive foul)
8:50.0 Turnover by A. Johnson (bad pass; steal by S. Curry) 63-75
8:45.0 63-75 M. Speights misses 2-pt shot from 2 ft
8:44.0 63-75 Offensive rebound by S. Curry
8:43.0 63-77 +2 S. Curry makes 2-pt shot from 1 ft
8:25.0 Turnover by K. Lowry (bad pass; steal by D. Green) 63-77
8:20.0 63-77 M. Speights misses 2-pt shot from 2 ft
8:19.0 63-77 Offensive rebound by M. Speights
8:19.0 63-79 +2 M. Speights makes 2-pt shot from 2 ft
8:02.0 Turnover by T. Ross (lost ball) 63-79
8:02.0 L. Williams enters the game for L. Fields 63-79
8:02.0 G. Vasquez enters the game for T. Ross 63-79
7:49.0 63-81 +2 M. Speights makes 2-pt shot from 15 ft (assist by D. Green)
7:31.0 K. Lowry misses 2-pt shot from 2 ft 63-81
7:30.0 63-81 Defensive rebound by K. Thompson
7:30.0 Personal foul by A. Johnson (drawn by K. Thompson) 63-81
7:20.0 63-83 +2 K. Thompson makes 2-pt shot from 17 ft
7:04.0 P. Patterson misses 2-pt shot from 3 ft (block by K. Thompson) 63-83
7:02.0 Offensive rebound by K. Lowry 63-83
6:56.0 Shooting foul by S. Curry (drawn by G. Vasquez) 63-83
6:56.0 G. Vasquez makes 3-pt shot from 25 ft (assist by P. Patterson) +3 66-83
6:56.0 Technical foul by K. Lowry 66-83
6:56.0 66-84 +1 S. Curry makes technical free throw
6:56.0 G. Vasquez misses free throw 1 of 1 66-84
6:54.0 66-84 Defensive rebound by K. Thompson
6:37.0 66-84 Turnover by K. Thompson (bad pass; steal by A. Johnson)
6:23.0 K. Lowry misses 2-pt shot from 2 ft 66-84
6:22.0 66-84 Defensive rebound by D. Green
6:17.0 66-87 +3 K. Thompson makes 3-pt shot from 23 ft (assist by S. Curry)
6:13.0 Toronto full timeout
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Jack Ross on the New Dawn of Athlete Activism

I don’t normally post an entire piece, but Jack Ross, writing for Vice Sports, has written something worthy of sharing in its entirety. After stumbling upon Ross’ prose recently, I recognize I’ve been missing out. Here is his piece on Derrick Rose and the modern day athlete-activist. If we don’t promote the actions of the athletes who are taking financial and public-relations risks in highlighting their own truths, we are missing a powerful cultural moment.

It’s beyond trite to pretend to have hard answers or make sense of our current moment in time in America through sports; foolish, in fact, to look upon the sports world and overemphasize or over-publicize our athletic heroes in their quest to send a message and have their voices heard.

That said, perhaps no industry better reflects the complex and disjointed nature of American race relations than the business of sports, and the subsequent intersection of race, power, employment, and workplace displays of resistance. As such, what has transpired in recent weeks may well be elevated, and with good reason.

When Derrick Rose turned last Saturday night’s shoot around into a one-man silent protest, that meant something. So too when the Rams Five stood in unison and raised their 10 hands aloft in dissent two weeks ago. And when members of the Washington NFL team did the same in the preseason, as well.

Ditto Magic Johnson’s call to arms. Ben Watson’s delicately crafted Facebook soliloquy. Kenny Smith’s open letter loudly opposing Charles Barkley. Maryland receiver Deon Long’s cardboard sign reminder that #blacklivesmatter. And a litany of others not named here.

No, the sports activist is not dead, as was once prophesied with the creation of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as agnostic and apolitical machines of victory and business. And though the tide of sports’ dissent is trending upward, it merely suggests an opening or beginning, following in the footsteps of sports advocates and retirees of decades past, who spoke (and speak) with vigor and candor, offering searing images of their own, and deeper debate.

That conversation starts and ends with Muhammad Ali: famously dropping his “slave name,” speaking to no end of the sordid history on which our country was forged, electing prison in lieu of military enlistment, a most everlasting action.

“I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free,” he told Playboy in 1975. Bill Russell called Boston at the time he played a “flea market of racism.” Tommie Smith and John Carlos turned the victory podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics into a stage for the loudest silent protest we have in recent memory. Imagine the outcry if, when taking gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, KD, LeBron, and Anthony Davis were to stand before the world with heads down and send the same message?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offered his own nuanced perspective on the sordid saga of Donald Sterling, where ultimately the just result may have been produced, but perhaps the means to the end was not. Consider the notion that Sterling operated as a bigot with social impunity (despite people like ESPN writer Bomani Jones screaming “This should be news” for years and decades). Only when TMZ decided to release Sterling’s ghastly words could his fate be decided, with the masses of media and social media digesting it and taking action belatedly, swiftly, and rashly. A telling example of the nebulous nature of acknowledging (and taking proactive steps) against racism before digital indignation demands it.

Or the story of former Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges’ unemployment, who sued the NBA in 1996, claiming to have been blackballed from a job for showing up to the White House in 1992 wearing a traditional dashiki and handing George H.W. Bush a letter to do more to end injustice against African-Americans.

Said Buck Williams, former Knicks forward and then-head of the player’s union, to the New York Times about the case: ”I don’t know if Hodges lost his job because of it, but it is a burden when you carry the militant label he has.”

That it is. And today, it’s that same potential “militant” label—one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist—that American athletes risk receiving with their every choice, raised fist, T-shirt, and verbal statement; every missive of personal truth navigating a minefield and the potential consequences of dropped sponsors, conservative outrage, and perhaps even their careers. A thin line between love and hate, truth and militance, knowledge and outward expression of said knowledge.

So, then, what else do we know?

Well, for starters, we live in a country where being black means a life in perpetual peril from police. The lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Amadou Diallo remind us that each was 21 more times more likely to be killed by armed forces than a white counterpart. Meanwhile, the thought of more cameras on more police vests is thought to be a feasible solution. For what, to document the atrocities yet to be? The next 12-year-old boy’s death broadcasted so as to trump the outrage of watching a grown man’s suffocated, horrifying final words? Is this worth (maybe) drawing compassion from the (hopefully) dwindling few yet to realize something is awry here?

And we know too, that as with the cases of Sterling and Ray Rice and Bruce Levenson, from Ebola to Occupy, our news media at large is beholden to its 24-hour news cycle. It is ever hungry for the next villain or movement or crisis or sound bite to cover; looking as quickly to read from the same script, and turn the page as quickly as possible. Real and lasting change be damned.

Even still, there remains a simple, tragic absurdity behind it all, as Chris Rock put eloquently: “White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.” The same absurdity serves as an opening as to where said crazy people can start to move the needle themselves.

In the end, though, in the search for righteous cultural expression, we can always remember the most basic of truths, for athletes and fans alike: Actions speak louder than words. But for now, anyways, nothing rings out more solemnly than the words Derrick Rose and so many others have taken as a call to action.

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DeMarcus Cousins, Authority, Anger and the Sacramento Kings @ Boston Celtics on December 31

DeMarcus Cousins is the most polarizing player in the NBA today (Rondo sent him the symbol of that polarization, a giant foam question mark, used and graying at the edges, in a package for Christmas. Rondo was given the question mark from Josh Smith years ago, who received the question mark a while back from Rasheed Wallace. Though Rondo and Smith are polarizing more for their style of play than their reactions on the court, Cousins and Rasheed share the same reputation among reactionary NBA fans who dismiss their expressions of outrage and overflowing passion as immaturity. If you go deeper than the surface, there is a lot to unpack in the way Cousins and Rasheed respond to referees. What does a referee symbolize? Control. Authority. Order. At their best, referees keep the game flowing and the physicality within reason. Refereeing in the NBA seems like an impossible task. The game is so fast. The best angles always changing. The threat of a technical too easy to employ.

Join me for a second, on an imagined trip away from the reality you know and to Mobile, Alabama (birthplace of Hank Aaron). I don’t know Mobile. I read about the city in Aaron’s autobiography, I Had a Hammer, but all I know is the city is poor, mostly black, and on the gulf coast. What influence does Mobile, Alabama have on DeMarcus? What influence on trust does his upbringing have? Five kids. A strong mother.

I’ve read about DeMarcus, the man they call Boogie. Jonathan Abrams, who writes the most compelling NBA profiles out there, wrote about Cousins in January, 2014. Abrams goes deep on players in order to help us see them as genuine human beings, flaws and all. He doesn’t jump to conclusions or bring his judgments. In that way, he is following the lead of Gary Smith, the sportswriter all great sports journalists would be wise to follow. Grantland has allowed Abrams to spend time reporting and thinking about stories, the way Sports Illustrated has given Lee Jenkins the time and resources.

It may be wisest to read Abrams piece first in order to get a real sense of DeMarcus. Here’s the opening of Abrams’ “The Ballad of Boogie”:

Whenever they were at the grocery store, Monique Cousins would train one eye on her shopping cart and the other on her son, DeMarcus. By the time he hit adolescence he was more than tall — his arms and legs were always in a tangle, and his knees and elbows jutted out everywhere. At the store, DeMarcus towered over aisles and shoppers alike. Sometimes he’d carelessly bump into them while casting his gaze above their heads. Sometimes they got angry with the giant, wandering boy.

“There would always have to be [an adult] around so that you could make that individual understand,” Monique Cousins said. “You would always have to tell them his age; then they would calm down. Because they would just look at [his] body. If you would just look at the face and listen to him talk, you’d know.”

Everyone saw a man. But DeMarcus Cousins was just a child.

♦♦♦

The first time Cousins practiced for Otis Hughley, his coach at Alabama’s LeFlore Magnet High School, he pawed a rebound, dribbled the length of the floor, and whipped a behind-the-back pass to a cutting teammate. Hughley ended practice right then and there.

“I needed time to process what he just did,” Hughley said. “I don’t even think he knew.”

No one has ever questioned Cousins’s talent. It’s his attitude — a unique brand of petulance that both makes him go and holds him back — that has defined his basketball life.

Abrams explores the deeper relationships in Cousins’ childhood. The one between Cousins and his mom, Monique. His early growth spurt and incredible athleticism. His trust-issues and attitude. Abrams includes quotes from his then-coach Mike Malone. Malone seemingly built a positive relationship with Cousins over the course of last season and the start to this one. The Kings were 9-6 and Cousins was playing fantastically and perhaps had turned the proverbial corner. Of course, what does it mean to have “turned a corner,” in regards to one’s relationship to anger and developing patience? It means the situation is going well and perhaps a new trust with one’s self is developing. It doesn’t mean one has instantly transformed.

Then he contracted viral meningitis. The season went south for Sacramento and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive made a seemingly irrational move and fired Malone. So much for the importance of trust and the bond between a coach and his best player. If Cousins secretly wanted Malone out, his play certainly didn’t show it. The explanation for the firing was that the Kings want to run an up-tempo offense. Now Ty Corbin must build something with Cousins, Rudy Gay, and the rest of the Kings. Time will tell.

Tim Keown wrote a profile for ESPN the Magazine last April, titled, “What is DeMarcus Cousins So Mad About?” I read it, and thought: if only Keown had gone further. The piece contains a photo of Cousins with an impossibly large collection of “exclusive” sneakers. Keown describes Cousins’ fascination with the shoes. What does a prized shoe collection represent? Childhood fascinations. Materialism. Feeling good about objects.

As fans, many react strongly to dramatic displays of exasperation from athletes. The ref makes a call. The athlete responds. Some fans love when athletes get technical fouls. The link between unbridled volatile expressions and the calls to quell the disturbance. What do you think these protests around the country are about? What connection (that should be hitting everyone directly between the eyes and in the heart as well) can we make? There is a deep anger that comes from being oppressed, from being labeled and misunderstood. Outrage is sometimes warranted. It makes people in power uncomfortable. It makes fans who want to escape into a game uncomfortable. #ICantBreathe t-shirts make some fans uncomfortable. Legislation in California. School bans on the t-shirt. Forms of censorship. None of this is incidental. We don’t have to connect the dots, but we should feel compelled to.

***

How are tall, black male children (who will later become men) generally treated in our society? How are large black men policed in our cities? Where does frustration go when unexplored feelings of rage river through one’s body and psyche? In the heat of the moment? Fight or flight is a real human response that most rarely have to experience in real life. When your life is public and centered around a basketball court, and your own issues with authority become manifested in public, you are labeled.

Cousins was labeled a “headcase,” a “knucklehead,” and all kinds of other titles in 2010, when he entered the NBA as a 20 year-old. In his first two years in the league, he led the NBA in personal fouls. Staying on the court became his Achilles heel. Not losing his temper went hand in hand with playing no-foul defense. As Kings fans know, the early season optimism (9-6 start) has turned to utter despair, and the future in Sacramento is in experimental laboratory mode. Not the best foundation for a volatile player to thrive in.

***

As I watched the Celtics game, 69 year-old Mike Gorman, longtime Celtics play-by-play announcer, declared the following about Cousins, “He came into this league unhappy and he’s been unhappy ever since.” The words are said with complete authority. Fact. The man is unhappy. Gorman and legendary color commentary man Tommy Heinsohn took turns pointing out the undeniable antics of DeMarcus. Cousins needed some counseling on the bench, but shots of coach Tyrone Corbin looking on apoplectically didn’t do much. With every hard foul and non-call, Cousins grew increasingly mopey and agitated. He didn’t run back down the court on defense. He went one-on-one too much. He let his frustrations overtake him.

The words echoed in part because of the “Cuzzzzzzzz-ins” chant that came from a fan near the television microphone. A mostly quiet matinee crowd was treated to a drunken lunatic berating a frustrated NBA player for stretches of the second half. It amazes me, and repulses me, that fans are still allowed to taunt players this way. Buying a ticket and drinking beer gives the lowest forms of human life a sense of entitlement. These are the ignorant among us. How do the fans in the arena, hearing the chorus of idiots, how do they feel? Do they blame the volatile young athlete for his anger and just move on?

Celtics coach Brad Stevens was wise to focus his game plan around Cousins, as most coaches facing Sacramento do. Cousins is the absolute key to any hope of Kings success on offense. Rudy Gay can create some points on his own. Darren Collison flashes around the court, but isn’t a great shooter. Ben McLemore was showing signs of a shooting break-out in November, back when things were working for the Kings. Not so much lately.

Cousins missed 10 games with viral meningitis. The Kings went 2-8 in his absence. In the 12 Kings wins where Cousins was on the court, he has a plus-minus of 19.2, an offensive rating of 119 and a defensive rating of 99 (basketball-reference.com). Without a doubt, Cousins is the key to Sacramento’s future, but who will unlock the best in him, and who will he allow to unlock the best in him?

DeMarcus Cousins is too good to be ignored. He is too volatile for many fans. His career remains a question mark. What will the next statement be?

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